Sensory Overload

I recently experienced sensory overload when I attended a film festival in my town. I ended up watching around 18 films or so in a span of a week (!). There were other cinephiles who managed to watch around 30 movies. Sure, some of the films I watched were terrific, but was it worth watching that many films in that short of a time frame? I am not sure, but guess what? I didn’t watch another film until almost a month after attending the festival. I just couldn’t. Not to mention, it took me a couple of days after the festival to process everything, to speak, and to rest. I enjoyed the festival very much, but later on I realized the experience was draining.

This is one reason why I limited myself to watching only one film a week in the past (for good reason). Here’s the thing: When you consume too much of something too quickly, be it food, movies, or what have you, your experience of it gets saturated and you don’t enjoy it as much. In the above example, if you have not watched a film in a while, you’re going to enjoy watching it (assuming it’s a good film). If you keep watching too many films in a short period of time like I did, then you’re not going to enjoy them as much no matter how good they are because you are not able to savor and process the experience of watching a single film. This goes back to having fewer quality experiences, but better.

Sensory overload occurs when we have one or more sources of stimulus occurring at once from overstimulation. This can be triggered by any number of things including sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, or some combination. Let me explain with some everyday examples.

I was reminded of this when playing a video game (action genre) for a couple of hours. Afterwards, I had other things I wanted to do and I had the time for it, but I didn’t have the mental space. I just couldn’t think. I needed to unplug by going out and taking a walk before I could renew myself and finish planning my week. As an aside, most people resort to using screens during their relaxation time (work lunch), which is anything but.

There are times when my mother visits me from out of town (like right now). She inevitably cooks (delicious) food in the kitchen, the smell of which can sometimes become overbearing to the point that it becomes difficult for me to work at home (despite having exhaust in the kitchen and even though my workstation is on the far side of the kitchen). I never thought about it in terms of sensory overload, but that’s exactly what it is.

Speaking of food, I always order à la carte and never choose buffet (in India). The thing with the former is you end up eating less food (zero waste) and spending less money (in other parts of the world, it might be cheaper to get a buffet than to order from a menu). Plus, in my experience, the quality of the food is always better when it’s freshly prepared for you. I prefer to eat a few things with satisfaction rather than pick and choose many mediocre things. Of course, you could still choose buffet and pick and choose a few things to eat, but then why spend the extra money?

In India, and especially in Bombay, it’s hard (for me) to keep pace with others who speak in multiple languages in the same conversation (English and Hindi), which can be disorienting. I’d rather have a conversation in one language rather than go back and forth between the two. It’s one of my pet peeves.

Another example is I find watching most movie trailers to be draining as they try to show too much in too little time; not to mention they cut from scene to scene too quickly. Watch a few trailers back to back and you’ll know what I mean. The same goes for advertising.

Relentless advertising on cable TV was one of the reasons I stopped using it. It diminished the experience of watching television. That’s why I have limited my TV viewing to watching only a couple of sporting events for a week or so in a calendar year. I only pay to keep my subscription alive for a week or so. The only other reason I use TV is to rent movies and play games. Remember, we are always under the influence of advertising.

I am not a fan of exposure to bright lights. Case in point: When I go to my barbershop, I ask my barber to turn off some of the lights, as the presence of excess lights can become overwhelming to me. I ask him to change the channel on the television to put on some music or sports rather than watch a soap episode infested with advertising. For that reason, I go to him when it’s less busy so he can accommodate my request.

I prefer keeping lights at my home dimmed for the very reason that too much brightness makes me feel drained. I hadn’t realized until now that the reason I found bright lights discomforting was partially due to sensory overload, but it totally was. My father is just the opposite. He needs bright lights indoors, or he feels as if it’s too dark. I guess one’s preferences comes back to nature and nurture.

I avoid going to crowded places for many reasons. I hate making unintentional physical contact with other people in public spaces. For one, where I live, there is no concept of personal space, which gets violated when people stand too close to each other. Sometimes it can’t be helped when you’re going to a train station, airport, or theater. In those situations, you have to be assertive with others about your physical space.

For this reason, I avoid going to the cinema when most people would flock to it. I prefer renting films at home or going on weeknights when there are fewer people around. This may just be a correlation, but in my experience, watching films during the week has been a far better experience than watching them on weekends.

It’s not uncommon to think that when fewer people visit an establishment (restaurant or what have you), the quality of that establishment in terms of product/service goes way up. When more customers are clamoring for your service, it can be challenging to serve them all at the same high standard.

I try to remove myself from situations where people have a tendency to speak loudly (either to someone or on the phone) in public, but it’s not always possible (see example below). This is more common than you might think, especially in public places (like train stations, airports, movie theaters, auditoriums). If you think about it, a public place should be the last place you want to talk aloud (to respect others). As obvious as it may be to some of us, there are times when the occasional oddball will do just this on a plane (of all places). Sadly, people’s behaviors have not caught up with modern technology and the perks it offers. In fact, it has only worsened over time.

In a similar vein, it’s hard to work at my home office when there is construction noise going on outside from adjacent buildings at random times during the day.

Speaking of working at home, I work in 90-minute sprints, after which I just need a break from the screen. This is not dissimilar to the aforementioned experience of playing video game for more than a couple of hours.

Then, there is the case of “information overload”, which, believe it or not, has less to do with the amount of information we have access to and more to do with what those things actually mean to us in terms of how we think about them. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the latter, but what can truly overwhelm us is sensory deprivation. Spend a few minutes in a dark room and you’ll know what I mean. Take a moment to think about how the blind navigate the world. They have to make the most of all the other senses (provided they have them) and even then sometimes fall short. Sensory deprivation can have effects that are similar to sensory overload, even though the stimuli are totally different.

I am reminded of this Herbert Simon quote:

What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.

We also experience this overload when we consume information mindlessly. Excessively watching videos or films, reading articles, or listening to podcasts endlessly without any purpose is overwhelming to the human brain without reflecting on why and what you’ve just consumed.

Here are some ideas for reducing sensory overload in our everyday lives.

Reserve your mornings for solitude. Think about it — we spend the most productive time of our day reading newspapers and consuming media rather than producing something of value. If you must read, read something from classic nonfiction genre, as it will keep you centered for the rest of the day. Remember, how you spend your morning will largely determine how you’ll spend the rest of your day.

This is one reason why I make or return phone calls in the afternoon or in the evening (as opposed to doing it in the morning). I guess this goes back partially to my introverted nature and partly to how I like to get work done.

Design your environment (home and work) to help you make choices by default without thinking. For instance, surround yourself with books and unplug your cable TV. Keep your workstation (and your home and work office) clean and organized — everything in its place — so you have the freedom to be creative within that space. Unless you start with a clean office (or kitchen), you won’t have the freedom to make a creative mess.

Slow the heck down. Do one thing at a time. Pause often as doing so will help you make better decisions. Get rest before important meetings. Experience fewer things, but better, be it food, movies, or what have you. Quality trumps quantity.

Apply the principle of moderation when it comes to the trifecta of health, work, and relationships. You have to set limits on things. Get rid of this desire to do more and more. Focus on fewer things and do them well. Use a process to figure things out.

Be ruthless with your time and attention, which is your most valuable resource. Be wary of who you spend time with as even that can result in sensory overload. You have to set limits in terms of who you spend time with; you likely don’t want to spend time with someone who will bring you down or drain your energy.

Consume information mindfully. Have a healthy diet of information. Just-in-time information always trumps just-in-case. Unplug cable TV. When you want to watch something, rent or buy it. At least that way you’re not consuming media mindlessly. It’s the difference between watching films on cable TV and renting it once a week using an Apple TV (or similar setup). While the former is about passive consumption, the latter forces you to consume proactively, which is what you want.

Stick to consuming one topic/subject at a time. Rather than read articles or watch videos about different things, find a topic you want to learn about, then read or watch that. While the medium (article or video) may differ, the topic will remain the same. Go for depth. I wrote about this in my draft on improving your relationship with technology for your benefit (and for those around you).

Limit or avoid using social media as it fragments your attention and reduces your ability to concentrate for long. Avoid reading newspapers in the morning. Instead, spend 15 minutes writing 500 words each morning. Yes, it’s entirely doable. You’ll thank me later.

Avoid watching TV shows and films (action genre) that cut their scenes too quickly as it reduces one’s ability to concentrate; not to mention it gets tiring quickly.

I go out of my way to avoid advertising. I don’t watch TV, so I don’t have to worry about that. I don’t read the newspaper as any news that is worth hearing I get from friends and family or reading online during my own discretionary time. When I listen to the radio in the car, I mute it during program breaks (which are terribly long) and resume when the ads are over. I have also stopped flipping radio channels in a frenzy to find the best music. I stick to one or two channels, which stays put for the entire duration of the ride.

If you’re not the kind of person who thrives in crowds, avoid them — particularly if you’re introverted (like I am) for reasons discussed earlier.

Speaking of introverts, I suspect (from personal experience) that they might be more prone to sensory overload than their extrovert counterparts. They are likely more sensitive to light, noise, and people. They get tired quickly from all the stimulation. In fact, what distinguishes an introvert from an extrovert is how they derive their energy to renew themselves. While extroverts might renew their energy from being around others, introverts might need more quality alone time for themselves to recharge.

Today, we are just a tap away from having access to all kinds of information on our phones and other devices. This can be good or bad depending on how we use it. It’s all a matter of perspective. Sure, we might be under the influence of relentless advertising, but it’s ultimately our choice how we use our attention. The effects of sensory overload quickly compound — overstimulation, reduced concentration, reduced space and ability to do things, etc. Unless we choose to use our attention well, we may not have any left.

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